On March 1, attackers with knives descended on a train station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming, killing at least 29. With the country still in shock, state news agency Xinhua has declared the assailants to be "Xinjiang separatists," which almost certainly locates the perpetrators among China's approximately 10 million Uighurs. The following story, which discusses relations between Uighurs and China's majority Han, originally appeared in September 2013 on ChinaFile, an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S. - China Relations.
In the winter of 2009, I was spending my weekends in the northeast
Chinese city of Tangshan, and eating most of my food from the far-western
province of Xinjiang. Like many minorities, the Uighur, the native people of Xinjiang,
have made their chief impact on mainstream culture through cuisine. I have
always favored their ubiquitous restaurants when traveling.
But there was something unfamiliar about the
place I usually ate at in Tangshan; the waiters were young children. Two solemn
little girls of about eight, wearing Muslim headscarves, would take my order
and relay it to the kitchen, occasionally joined by their plump-cheeked
Putting the kids out front echoed the Chinese depiction of ethnic
minorities, regularly represented -- as in the 2008 Olympic
opening ceremonies -- as children. It created a familiar, comfortable
world for the majority Han clientele, especially since the kids, unlike their
parents, spoke fluent Mandarin. When the back door opened, I sometimes got a
glimpse of another world; a cluster of Uighur men and one woman smoking,
cooking, and joking in their own language, entirely isolated from
After we had gotten on familiar terms -- I let them play on my
laptop -- I asked the girls when they started working as waitresses. "In July,"
they said. It wasn't surprising that the restaurant might have wanted a
friendlier face at that point. That was the time that a Uighur mob had tried to
murder one of my friends.
“Kill the Han”
I had met "Bruce" Li by chance on the Beijing subway in 2007. I
was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Swedish flag, and he greeted me with "God kväll," then switched to English after my confused "Huh?" A scrawny,
smiley Southerner, he had just finished his Master's degree in linguistics and
spoke four foreign languages even though he had never been overseas. We became
friends; his careful, sympathetic interest in the world, books, and other
cultures was a pleasure. He was leaving Beijing that fall for a Ph.D. at
Xinjiang University in the provincial capital of Urumqi.
Language, like so much else, is contentious in Xinjiang, where
many Uighur grow up learning, at best, rudimentary Mandarin (Putonghua), China's official language. For most Chinese citizens, mastery
of Mandarin is a priority. Local "dialects" are discouraged in the media and in
education, and heavy accents turn many employers off.
Yet the language policy of the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.)
was surprisingly flexible from the start when it came to the ethnic minorities,
giving minority tongues equal status as official languages in their own region,
establishing minority-language schools, and encouraging Han cadres sent to the
border regions to learn the local languages. Chinese bank notes throughout the
country are written in five different scripts, including Uighur.
Among the Uighur, however, the policy has created two distinct
groups: theminkaohan, minorities educated in Mandarin, and the minkaomin, educated in their own language. Minkaomin education is not taken seriously by non-Uighur employers, and not
speaking Mandarin shuts minkaomin graduates out of jobs. In turn, they often resent minkaohanstudents as opportunistic and unfaithful to their own heritage. Li
was interested in what language, Mandarin or Uighur, minkaohan used when they met each other, especially with a
Beyond his work, he developed a passion for the landscape and the
culture. We talked over e-mail, and he wrote me lyrical descriptions of driving
to dunes and mountains, of being hosted at Uighur banquets, and of the flight
of birds in clear skies. While most students at the university stuck with their
own, he deliberately lived outside the school in a Uighur area, with three
He became trusted enough that "people were always showing me maps
of East Turkestan and saying ‘Look, this is our country.'" Maps are another
bitter topic in Xinjiang, since they are almost always published exclusively in
Chinese, despite the region's bilingualism, and the name "East Turkestan" is a
rallying point for Uighur nationalism.
Use of the term without qualification-as in "the so-called East
Turkestan"-is highly risky. By displaying the maps, mostly copies of pre-P.R.C.
Western or Russian documents, Li's friends were re-asserting their national
identity even as they invited him into their circle. It was a simple message:
our country was here before your people were.
On July 5, 2009, Li was shopping with other students in the Grand
Bazaar, one of the city's main tourist attractions. A Polish girl with him
received a phone call from a Uighur friend, who told her there was trouble
brewing in the city center. They went to see the protest,
which had taken an ugly turn. There were shouts, banners, and no sign of the
police. As they watched, people began overturning cars, and they decided to
split up and head home rather than risk serious trouble.
Li was on the bus by himself, balancing a watermelon on his lap,
when a crowd of young Uighur men, many of them waving knives, blocked the
vehicle's way. He raised his phone to take pictures and his seatmate, an older
Han man, grabbed it from his hand, hissing, "Don't aggravate them!" The mob
began rocking the bus from side to side, the passengers, mostly Han, screaming.
The bus toppled. Several men dragged the driver out, and, as Li told me a few
months later over dinner in Beijing, "cut off his head." ("Jesus fucking
Christ!" I said loudly, startling the people at the next table.)
Li forced the escape window at the back open, and ran, still
holding his watermelon. Some of the Uighur ran after him, holding knives. He
threw the watermelon at them and kept running into the alleys. Eventually he
found a group of other non-Uighur and took refuge in a hotel, where the staff
sent them up to the nineteenth floor, shut down the elevators, and barricaded
He could hear shouts from below, chants of "Kill the Han, smash
the Hui [another Islamic minority], drive the Mongols out." I heard similar
versions of the chant later from other witnesses. Although sometimes the order
of other groups was switched up, or the verb changed ("Cut the Kazakhs!"), the
first clause was always the same. He stopped looking out of the window once the
gunfire started, sporadic bursts in the night after the People's Armed Police,
China's paramilitary force, entered the city.
The next day, police escorted him back to the university, where
the students would be locked in, guards outside, for another week. On the way,
he saw dozens of bodies strewn about the streets. "There were children," he
told me, shivering, "and a pregnant woman, with her stomach cut up. You know
how I used to want to be a foreign correspondent? I don't know how they can
stand it, to go to places and see things like that. They must have very
On the first night after the riot, he and the other non-Uighur
students seriously expected to be attacked again. They barricaded the dorm and
carried sticks and knives. "One of my Uighur friends gave me his knife," he
said drily. In the next few days, they watched with black amusement reports on
Chinese television about how ethnic unity had been restored to Urumqi, and the
mutual love between Han and Uighur could not be destroyed by terrorism. "They
were boasting about how the bus system had been reopened-but the people on it
were all plainclothes policemen."
Li's life inside the Uighur community was shattered. Now, whenever
he was the only Han around, the fear came back. He avoided his former
roommates, and when he saw them again, "they were with a group of other young
Uighur, people I didn't know. They were talking very fast, so that I couldn't
understand them, and staring at me." His paranoia was shared.
Fear pervaded Urumqi; a week after the riots, stories started
to spread that Uighur, or Han, depending on which side you talked to, were injecting
AIDS-infected blood into random strangers in crowds. It was an old urban myth, the
source of an outbreak of
panic in Beijing and Tianjin in 2002, but tinged with ethnic hatred.
Thousands of people queued up for HIV tests at local hospitals.
A city already largely segregated by race solidified its
boundaries; large portions became, in the perception of both Uighur and Han,
no-go areas for those of the wrong ethnicity. It eased a little in the two
years until he left, but only a little.
“Only Foreigners Can Be Imperialists”
Despite everything, Li still made an effort to sympathize with and
understand Uighur positions. It was an approach made in part possible by his
reading in Global Linguistics, a field concerned with power, domination, and
endangered cultures. He had a vocabulary to understand the situation that most
The Urumqi riots in 2009 were the worst inter-communal violence in
China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. At least 194 people were
killed. Most of them were Han, although there were also Uighur deaths-rioters,
small shopkeepers targeted by the mob, and others caught in retaliatory Han
violence. Retaliation was restrained by the swift arrival of the paramilitary
forces and other state authorities, who made serious and laudable efforts to
prevent revenge killings, even as they made fair game of any young Uighur man
foolish enough to stay on the street that night. Police talked down, and
occasionally tear-gassed, large Han crowds, vans blared messages to return home
and stay off the streets, and official material strongly stressed ethnic
reconciliation and the "terrorist" rather than "Uighur" nature of
But many Xinjiang residents had accounts of violence elsewhere in
those days, inspired by the pogrom in the capital. The bulk of these stories
were accounts by Uighur of Han revenge attacks when "several" or "a dozen"
people were killed and the local authorities conspired to cover it up. By the
time they reached me, though, these stories were second or third-hand: "My
brother says that he heard in his town three young men were beaten to death by
In official Chinese media, the riots were filtered through only
one lens: terrorism. It was an approach adopted after the September 11, 2001
attacks to piggyback the U.S. war on terror, though it found little sympathy
overseas, save with the Russians attempting the same thing with Chechnya.
Chinese State media blamed the riots on "Muslim terrorists"
bewitching the young with their seductive words. Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled
Uighur leader in the States, and her World Uyghur Congress (W.U.C.) were
accused of being behind the attack, as, it seems, they are of everything that
goes wrong in Xinjiang. In reality, the W.U.C.'s involvement was limited to
some faxes informing them of the protest as it happened, followed by slightly
delusional press releases in which the W.U.C. accused the police of starting
the violence by firing on unarmed Uighur.
Some distinction was made between the "terrorists" and the
ordinary Uighur who were happy, faithful, and loyal to both State and Party.
Chinese media emphasized Uighur victims and the "innocent" or "civilian" nature
of those attacked.
Over this year's long summer of violence in Xinjiang, Chinese
State media applied this the same language to every incident. There was the
killing of social workers in a bloody fight between the police and what may
have been a genuine terrorist cell, a criminal gang, or just a half-dozen angry
young men. Even the nature of the "social workers" is disputed; Chinese media
depicted them as saints seeking only to do good, but "social work" in Xinjiang
often translates to surveillance and control of Uighur. By the time of the June
attacks in Shanshan, where another twenty-seven people were killed, the
attackers had stopped being "rioters" or "criminals" and become straightforward
"terrorists," linked by state
media to the Syrian civil war.
Terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for attacks in
Xinjiang, though the extent of their activity, like just about everything else,
is hotly disputed.
Chinese authorities single out the East Turkestan
Islamic Movement (ETIM) for especial demonization,
but there is doubt as to whether ETIM is an organized body or whether the name
is adopted by smaller, more isolated groups on an ad
hoc basis. There are bombings or armed assaults every few months. But
there were ways of looking at the Urumqi riots that made more sense than the
vision of young Uighur led astray by wicked mullahs, or the ideal of perpetual
Uighur innocence put forward by exile groups such as the W.U.C.
For me, the resonance was with both ethnic massacres and
anti-colonial violence; Bosnia, India, and, most particularly, Algeria's cycle
of atrocity and reaction at the end of France's colonial rule in
In Algeria, as in Xinjiang, the authorities ostensibly promoted
ethnic harmony while systematically discriminating against locals and favoring
an increasingly embittered population of settlers. The French may not have
pretended that Algeria had always been France, as the Chinese do Xinjiang, but
unlike their other African possessions it was a French department, and Algerian schoolchildren began their history lessons with
"Our ancestors, the Gauls ..." Fueled by humiliation and dispossession, Algerians
committed atrocities against the French, especially the settler population, and
were the target of atrocity in return.
But pointing out such parallels is not only taboo in China, but
almost literally unthinkable. "Imperialism" and "colonialism" are things that
happened to China, not that it does. A Russian friend, doing a thesis at Peking
University on Qing and Russian competition for Siberia in the nineteenth
century, wrote of "Chinese imperialism" in one of his papers. "Only foreigners
can be imperialists," his teacher sternly told him.
“Only with Our Own”
As its name, which literally means "New Frontier," suggests,
Xinjiang was barely and rarely under Chinese control for most of the empire's
history; it was not until the Qing conquests of 1745 that it fell under
imperial administration, and even then it was left largely to its
Other minorities, like the Mongols and the Hui, scythed their way
into China's history books, whether as rulers, raiders, or rebels. Whatever
other identities they have, their history is tied up with China's as much as
Ireland's is with England. The Uighur were, and are, marginal. It is one of the
reasons why the recent attempts to grandfather in a continuous Chinese presence
are both absurd and deeply resented.
The People's Liberation Army's "triumphant march" across Xinjiang
in 1949, defeating Uighur and Kazakh "rebels," introduced the Han to Western
China for good. Older Han who spent time in Xinjiang in the 1950s through the
1970s are often nostalgic for what they see as a time of joint prosperity. "We
got on very well," remarked Ren, a Beijinger in his early eighties sent by the
government to work and settle in Karamay, in Xinjiang, in the 1950s. "We
learned some of the language, we had lots of Uighur friends, we used to go and
eat in each other's houses ... I think the problems now are just caused by a
Today, Uighur-Han ethnic relations are the most bitter in China.
On the Uighur side, the reasons are obvious; as they see it, the Han are
occupiers, invaders, and despoilers. Uighur conversation, particularly among
men, is full of casually derogatory references to the Chinese. The state and
the locals in Xinjiang literally keep different time-State institutions, and
most Han, go by Beijing time, universal across the country, but Uighur keep
time by the geographical reality of their time zone, a difference of two hours,
while local businesses oscillate between the two. In practice, Uighur switch
easily between "Xinjiang time" and "Beijing time" and confusion is rare. But
many Han, segregated in communities under Beijing's watch, stick only to one
clock, preferring a government-approved rhythm of the day over a more natural
one. Uighur asked the time by unthinking Han will give Beijing hours if they
want to help, but local time if they feel mischievous.
The bitterness grew sharply in the 1980s, following China's
economic liberalization. The chief cause was the influx of Han to Xinjiang,
going from a fraction of the population to numbers equal to the Uighur.
(Xinjiang demographics are as contested as everything else, unsurprisingly.)
As mining and oil development opened up Xinjiang's wealth, Han
arrived to take, in the Uighurs' view, the lion's share. "We should be as rich
as Saudi Arabia," one Uighur day laborer told me as we shared beers on a
construction site in Beijing this summer. And as Han poured in, Uighur poured
out. Like everybody else in China, the Uighur move for work. With the Han
arrival, too, jobs for Uighur became scarcer, and the diaspora spilled across
The gulf between the two communities has spoiled even genuine
efforts to reach between them. Take music, one of the very few areas where
Uighur have a positive reputation in wider Chinese culture. Uighur songs are
famous, but they're also stripped of cultural and historical context, and mostly
sung by Han women wearing minority costume, like new "First Lady" Peng Liyuan.
It shows all the respect of nineteenth-century ethnic European performers
wearing moccasins and singing about Hiawatha. Even Uighur performances are forced into a
syrupy mess of "ethnic harmony."
But then there are people like Wang Luobin, a Han musician who was
the first to popularize Uighur music. Wang travelled throughout Xinjiang in the
1950s, recording and adapting Uighur tunes out of a genuine love for the music
and the culture. Imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, he led another
revival of Uighur music, adapted for Han ears, in the 1980s. In a better world,
he would have been a bridge between two cultures; instead, he is despised by
many Uighur for stealing their
Today within Xinjiang, official policy toward the Uighur can be
surprisingly sensitive, but the application is cack-handed. A halal option is
provided, at least in theory, in the canteens of every State institution in
China, but university staff force Xinjiang students to eat during the daytime
during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Uighur, like other ethnic minorities,
are allowed two or three children rather than one, but family planning
officials patrol villages peeking into bins for evidence of menstruation.
The meshrep, a traditional male Uighur gathering, is on UNESCO's list of
"Intangible Cultural Heritage" items for China, but "illicit" meshrep are banned and groups of young men often broken up by
Han officials are encouraged by official directives to learn
Uighur, but, despite the availability of excellent Uighur-Chinese textbooks, it
is rare for any of them to make it past the level of "Hello." In official
interactions, the burden is on the locals to make themselves understood, though
Uighur officials often serve as intermediaries for monolingual compatriots.
There is a thriving Uighur publishing industry, but dozens of Uighur writers,
historians, and poets have been jailed for their work. Officials are given
lectures on respecting Islamic values, but police toss Qurans to the floor
during raids on "illegal" madrassas.
Outside the state level, Uighur experience routine discrimination
throughout the country, at a level that even State media has acknowledged and
deplored. It is rare for hotels in central or east China to accept Uighur
guests; if their names or ID cards dont give it away during the booking,
they're turned away without explanation or apology when they try to check in.
Even Han with a hukou (resident permit) from
Xinjiang sometimes face similar discrimination. Uighur travellers rely on
"no-show motels," illicit hostelries which don't require ID from their
visitors, or on kinship and friendship networks among themselves. "We can't
stay anywhere but with our own," a Uighur student visiting Beijing told me. He
ended up in a dorm at Beijing Normal University after being turned away from
every hotel he tried.
Among the Han, the popular dislike for Uighur is more complicated.
Some of it is simple resentment against minorities. Uighur and Tibetans are
seen as ungrateful recipients of national largesse, especially since huge sums
of money have been poured into China's "backward" and "uncivilized" Western
regions. From a grassroots Han perspective, the minorities get all the breaks:
more generous social welfare, the leeway to have more than one child, lower
score requirements to get into college, reserved spots in
Much of this is a matter of perception: Xinjiang's welfare
benefits are the same as for other provinces, but because unemployment among
the Uighur is so high, Uighur are far more likely to be living off the dole,
sometimes combined with gray income.
Uighur sociologist Turgunjun Tursun put it sharply in a March 2012
article for The Global Times newspaper: "Ignoring the difficulties and hardships ethnic
minorities have to endure to survive in mainstream Han society while whining
about so-called ‘reverse discrimination' is ridiculous." But those difficulties
are largely invisible in the media, and largely meaningless to ordinary Han who
have plenty of hardships of their own. "How can they expect us to give them
jobs," complained an Urumqi-based employee of State oil firm Sinopec, "when
they can't even be bothered to learn the national language?"
According to researchers like Jay Dautcher,
the Uighur refusal to participate in popular Chinese culture is near-absolute.
Jorge Rios, a young Mexican writer who works as a waiter at a large Uighur
restaurant in Xinjiang, described how "the TVs are never tuned to Chinese
television and they never play Chinese songs. Instead they bring in DVDs of
Central Asian or Turkish television."
Han often identify Uighur with Islam, which they can see as being
both backwards and foreign. The refusal of Uighur to eat pork, which is
ubiquitous in Chinese food-even in vegetable and tofu dishes-is a source of
considerable curiosity and amusement; Uighur dining out with Han socially often
face pressure to chow down on the forbidden meat.
On Chinese State and social media, there was bitterness, and some
gloating, over the supposed discrepancy between official U.S. treatment of and
public reaction to the bombers of the Boston Marathon on April 15 and the
general American attitude toward the Xinjiang killings eight days later. My
Chinese friend Qian Li, studying in London, posted "Whenever a local kills in
the U.S., that's sad; whenever a Muslim kills, that's evil; whenever a Muslim
kills in China, that's the evil Communists!"
Yet Islam, ultimately, is a secondary issue in the way Han see the
Uighur, however critical it can be as both a symbol of religious and ethnic
identity in Xinjiang. The bulk of China's tens of millions Muslims are not
Uighur but Hui, virtually indistinguishable from Han in many parts of the
country. Members of other traditionally Islamic minorities are considerably
less likely, in my experience, to be practicing Muslims, than the Uighur,
although there is a growing, quiet
The most common image of Uighur among the Han is not that they are
Muslims, or terrorists, but that they are criminals. It is commonly held, for
instance, that Uighur peddlers force local Chinese businesses to buy huge quantities
of the sweet nut cakes(qiegao in Mandarin) they sell in every city center, as part of their
And many Han believe that the police ignore Uighur crimes,
unwilling to get involved in prospective ethnic conflicts that might bring
unwelcome attention from superior officials. "If a Uighur is arrested, he just
slashes himself with his blade, and then the police don't want to touch him
because if he's hurt, they have to take him to hospital and pay," I was told by
an earnest young woman keen that I should understand what a difficult situation
the police were in.
All of these stories contain trickles of truth. In a notorious case
last December, after an all-out brawl between Uighur nut cake
vendors and local businessmen in Yueyang, Hunan Province, the businessmen were
forced by the police to fork over a reported 160,000 yuan (U.S.$25,700) in
compensation. Some of the money was to pay for hospital costs for the injured
vendors and damaged motorcycles, but 96,600 yuan was for the ruined
I talked over the Internet to a police officer surnamed Wu (who,
as many officials do, declined to tell me his given name), also in Hunan. "It's
true we don't like to deal with Uighur," he told me. "There's a lot of
paperwork to fill in, and ethnic issues are sensitive. If we do the wrong
thing, we could get in trouble ourselves. So we, and the chengguan [urban enforcement officers], often leave them alone."
The Uighur benefit, to some degree, from their difference: Han
witnesses are strikingly unlikely to be able to identify them by any
characteristic other than their ethnicity. Yet judging by Uighur accounts of
police brutality, the relationship is cyclical; while police, as Wu says, often
ignore minor Uighur offences for fear of extra hassle from their superiors,
they resent having to do so. When they have an excuse to actually make an
arrest, it goes worse for the Uighur as a result.
Coming out of the Tuanjiehu subway station in Beijing this June,
my friend noticed a heavy police presence. I went down and asked one of the
local three-wheeler drivers what the cause was. "There were a couple of Uighur
hawkers here the other day," one of the drivers said, "So the police wanted to
drive them away before so many of them showed up that there was
Even the blade story may have roots in reality. Dave Lyons, a
former Xinjiang resident, recounted to me being told by a Uighur police officer
in Xiamen that police stations commonly had Uighur officers whose role was to
deal with gangs of Uighur child beggars, and to stop the kids from slashing
themselves when caught to try to force the police to take them to hospital
rather than jail.
The sheer distinctiveness of the Uighur, immediately recognizable
by their Turkic features, works against them. It is true that there are Uighur
protection rackets. But in my experience, non-local Chinese crime is based upon
regional affiliation networks: Henan gangs, Hunan gangs, Hebei gangs, Hubei
gangs-criminals, like other migrant workers, stick to their own, whether they
come from the same village, the same province, or the same ethnicity.
But when somebody sees a street vendor pushed up against a wall
and threatened by ordinary thugs, the witness can't tell whether they're from
Anhui in the south or Heilongjiang in the north. When it's done by Uighur,
they're immediately identifiable. But I suspect that, given the difficulties
that Chinese often have telling ethnic
minorities apart, that when it's done by Kazakhs, Uzbeks, or other
Turkic minorities, they're usually identified as being Uighur anyway, and the
reputation of Uighur as criminals grows.
The Uighur knife is a constant worry. I've talked to a couple of
dozen Han about the Uighur over the last three years, and every one of them
stressed that they carry knives every day; true, to some extent, though far
more as a tool than as a weapon.
Knives appear in every story of Uighur violence; the spring
killings were sparked, according to the media reports, by the discovery of a
pile of knives in a house, while the social workers were held hostages with
"1.2 meter long knives."
Knives inspire more fear in China than in the West. Where the U.S.
had school shootings, China had a rash of knife attacks on schoolchildren.
Around important events, there are regulations to control the sale of knives.
Even Chinese thugs tend to avoid the knife, preferring blunt, deniable weapons;
despite there being almost no baseball played in China, baseball bats
are big sellers online.
Knives or not, the routine presence of Uighur is often read by Han
as threatening. The Chinese like their minorities to be beautiful women or cute
children. If they are men, they should be old, or at the least dressed in a
"traditional" costume, and preferably dancing.
This is typically about as representative of modern minority life
as Morris dancing is of English culture, and about as dignified. The best
example of this is Beijing's Minzu Gongyuan (Ethnic Minorities Park), outside
of which used to be an all-too-accurate sign in English, which read "Racist
Park." A trip through the park is like a deranged live-action version of
Disneyland's It's a Small World ride, an all-singing, all-dancing performance from every minority,
with the majority of the performers women.
The Uighur presence on city streets, though, is aggressively male.
All across China, Uighur men stand on street corners in little clusters,
selling huge chunks of nut cake or cheap goods, cigarettes hanging out of their
mouths. In contrast to the soft-faced Han, they're often bristly and unshaven.
Their stance can be slightly sly, like spivs hawking knock-offs on some East
End London street in the 1950s. But when they walk, it's not with the nervous,
ready-to-dart steps of other vendors; they swagger with an easy, laddish
confidence. It's no coincidence that young Uighur men have taken to
hip-hop with enthusiasm; its defiant machismo echoes as strongly in
Kashgar as Compton.
There is another minority strongly identified with masculinity
within Chinese culture: the Mongols. But there is a level of comfort with
Mongol masculinity that does not exist with the Uighur. It fits into the image
that China's dongbeiren (Northeasterners) have of themselves: hard-drinking,
hard-fighting, real men, often proud of Mongol or Manchu heritage, either real
Wang Lijun, the former Police Chief of Chongqing whose flight to
the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu last February sparked the scandal that brought
down his mentor Bo Xilai, is supposedly half-Mongolian, and was purportedly
named "Unen Baatar" (True Hero) by his father. Chinese media, back before
Wang's disgrace, lauded him for his "iron-blooded" policing techniques and
praised him for inheriting "the heroic styles of his famous ancestor Genghis
Khan." But Wang has been accused of being "one hundred percent Han" and
deliberately switching his identity to profit from minority-directed tokenism.
Such allegations of opportunistic ethnicity aren't rare in Inner Mongolia, but
are almost non-existent in Xinjiang.
“Han at the Bottom”
One of the most striking differences between the Uighur and other
Chinese minorities is the lack of inter-marriage. Han-minority marriages are
common, and many of my Chinese friends I thought were straightforwardly Han
have turned out to be half-Hui or half-Miao. In Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou,
all areas with heavy minority populations, between ten and fifteen percent of
households are bi-ethnic, mostly Han-minority marriages. In Xinjiang, the rate
is two percent, and most of those are marriages between Uighur and
I sparked an argument among a group of Uighur, mostly Beijing
residents, by bringing up the idea of the marriage hierarchy; which other
ethnicity was it best to marry into? Uzbeks and Kazakhs ranked high, and
Americans and other foreigners pretty well, though there was a strong case made
by one man for the Hui. ("Very good Muslims," he said, "Better than the Uzbeks,
anyway.") There was a universal consensus, however, that the Han were at the
bottom, and by a pretty vast distance. "If my sister married a Han," one of the
group, working as a computer programmer in Beijing at a Chinese firm and
translating from Uighur for me, said, "I wouldn't talk to her again."
Among the Han I talked to, there was a widespread misconception
that marrying Uighur women is illegal, literally. This is seen as yet another
concession to the Uighur, and resented. It was true at one point, long ago;
inter-marriage in Xinjiang was forbidden until 1979, in an attempt to avoid
offending Uighur sensibilities. Even after the ban was lifted, though, mixed
marriages remained vanishingly rare. The veil, sometimes worn by Uighur women,
adds fuel to the fire of Han antagonism; they can have our women, but we can't
I met one of the rare Han-Uighur children, daughter of a Uighur
mother and a Han father. Amy, twenty-eight, preferred her English name to her
Chinese one, and had never had a Uighur name that she knew of. She worked in
"hospitality and entertainment for special clients" in the Middle East, though
we met when she was visiting Shanghai. She was tiny and head-turningly
beautiful, like an Arabian princess on the cover of a pulp magazine, with the
high cheekbones and dark eyes of her mother mixed with her father's
"I was brought up by my father's parents," she told me. "They used
to call me and my sister ‘our pretty little Uighur.' They meant it lovingly,
but it was another way of knowing I was different. I only saw my mother's
family twice, when I was very small, and I only spoke Chinese growing up. But I
couldn't forget who I was. When I hear Uighur songs, even though I don't
understand them, they make me cry. But I don't feel I have anything in common
with Uighur. When I see the men, I think they look disgusting."
With the fear of Uighur masculinity goes a fear of Uighur
sexuality. This is most acute in Xinjiang itself. Bolo is a common Uighur word for children of both sexes, also used in
compounds to describe men, meaning anything from "a good lad" to "a realmensch." But as anthropologist Jay Dautcher points out, the Han in
Xinjiang have adapted the term into Mandarin as bolangzi, "bo-wolf," as a description of young Uighur men, with strong
connotations of sexual aggressiveness. (Selang, "color wolf," means
anything from a predator to a playboy.) As on most fraught ethnic borderlands,
both communities warn their young women about the other's young men.
It was this fear that lit the long-distance fuse for the Urumqi
riots. The original intent was to protest an incident in Shaoguan, far away in
the southern province of Guangdong, a week-and-a-half before the riots. There,
a mob of Han workers had attacked their Uighur counterparts in a factory,
killing at least two and injuring dozens. "I just wanted to beat them. I hate
Xinjiang people," one of them told The Guardian. "Seven or eight
of us beat a person together. Some Xinjiang people hid under their beds. We
used iron bars to batter them to death and then dragged them out and put the
The spark for the attack was a rumor that six Uighur had
gang-raped two Han girls. But there had been no rape. One of the Han girls, a
nineteen-year-old from the countryside, had walked into a Uighur male dormitory
by mistake. According to a Xinhua report published three days after the riot,
she "screamed when I saw those Uygur young men in the room." She said she had
no idea why she was so frightened, but "I just felt they were unfriendly so I
turned and ran. One of them stomped his feet like he was coming after me, but I
didn't realize he was just joking."
Yet that fear, and that joke, may have become real in Urumqi. It
was the least reported aspect of the riots, covered up by the authorities for
worry of sparking further revenge attacks, but stories circulated both online
and among the Han in Xinjiang and their relatives elsewhere of gang-rapes
during the riots. I heard convincing personal accounts from Han
friends with family in Xinjiang of several Han women, and one Mongolian, hospitalized
Many of the other atrocities recounted, from babies thrown out of
windows to violated corpses, seem more dubious, though not impossible. Too
often they reminded me of the alleged crimes of the Germans in Belgium in 1914,
or the Iraqis in Kuwait in 1991. Atrocity stories repeat themselves, but then,
so do atrocities. As with so much else in Xinjiang, it remains indistinct.